In a Singapore government poster from the early 1970s, a young mother stands in a laundry-strewn apartment with a screaming infant on her hip. Her toddler is on the floor wailing and her husband stands disapprovingly in the doorway, disgusted by the messy home. A thought bubble appears above the woman’s head: “If only I hadn’t married so early.”
The message was part of a campaign to discourage teenage weddings and large families. When Singapore became independent in 1965, the average mother had at least four children. Lowering the birthrate was considered vital to eradicating poverty, and boosting education and healthcare, as well as moving much of the population from crowded shop houses to affordable public housing — the tenets of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s (李光耀) vision for the city-state.
Half a century later, Singapore is very different. After falling steadily for years, its total fertility rate, the number of children a woman has over the course of her lifetime, slipped to a record low of 1.1 last year, official figures show. A rate of 2.1 is considered the requirement to keep a population steady.
The government now offers baby bonuses of as much as S$10,000 (US$7,429), and the cost of reproductive technology treatment is heavily subsidized. Late last year, Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat (王瑞傑) foreshadowed further incentives.
The government’s latest preoccupation with child-rearing could be interpreted as an attempt to address an overcorrection. It also rests on the premise that more people would boost growth. However, this view skates past a certain inevitability: Singapore’s economic star was destined to fade long before its demographic challenges manifested.
In a 1994 essay in Foreign Affairs, economist Paul Krugman, a 2008 Nobel laureate, said that the so-called “Asian Tiger” economies were benefiting from a rare surge in the workforce and investment, which would eventually dissipate.
In Singapore, per capita income roughly doubled every decade from 1966 to 1990, and GDP rose 8.5 percent per year, Krugman said.
The share of the population that was employed and the number of people who received secondary education rose dramatically.
“Even without going through the formal exercise of growth accounting, these numbers should make it obvious that Singapore’s growth has been based largely on one-time changes in behavior that cannot be repeated,” he wrote.
The most obvious way to mitigate slower growth — more immigration — has met periodic resistance. Historically, Singapore embraced workers from abroad, who brought specific skills required by multinational companies or perform roles that do not excite locals. A big chunk of foreigners in the city-state work in construction or food-and-beverage industries.
However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Singaporean government emphasized the need to preserve the “Singapore core.”
Attention to domestic sensitivities has been amplified since the general election in July last year, when the opposition picked up seats in parliament.
You could argue that this has always been a latent concern.
“Singaporeans have strong reservations about admitting immigrants, but we arrive at this option almost by process of elimination,” Lee wrote in his 2013 book One Man’s View of the World. “Do we face up to reality and accept that some immigrants are necessary, or do we simply allow Singapore to shrink, age and lose vitality?”
Yet demographic challenges do not necessarily spell economic hardship. Japan’s population is contracting and aging simultaneously. Despite the caricature of the country as an economic failure in the grip of terminal decline, life goes on. True, growth in overall GDP has been fairly anemic in past few decades, but GDP per capita has held up well. Businesses continue to invest and, prior to the pandemic, Japan began to tentatively embrace immigration as part of the solution to population retreat.
In Singapore, there is also hope in greater use of robots and automation. Androids became more visible last year, from a mechanical dog called Spot that patrolled a popular park to monitor social distancing, to a robot barista and cute machines that help clean hawker centers.
However, it is unclear, given the premium now placed on social harmony and protecting jobs, whether the country will go for extensive deployment of robots anytime soon. In a nod to technological aspirations and labor-market constraints, officials in November last year announced a new category of visa for people with a proven track record in this field.
Singapore’s strategy for decades was marketing itself as an efficient, well-regulated and impeccably maintained first-world island — a place that would stand out in a region renowned for sky-high growth rates, but beset by straining infrastructure and political volatility.
To a large extent, smaller families are a byproduct of all this prosperity. Unlike the family in the 1970s poster, both parents tend to work these days. Locals complain about stress, a national ethos that emphasizes professional advancement, and the pressure to get their child into good high schools and the National University of Singapore.
Almost every street corner has a business offering extracurricular tutoring in math, science and English.
“The tiger mom concept is so rampant here,” said Anu, a 40-year- old who works in public relations and has one child, lamenting the anxieties parents and children face.
For an updated understanding of modern family friction, a more instructive exercise would be to camp out at the Forum mall on Orchard Road, one of Singapore’s most iconic streets.
On a Sunday afternoon, you can join throngs of families shuttling one or two kids between ballet, music, Taekwondo and gym classes. Singaporeans might be content with fewer children, but they are sure ready to spend a lot on them. Welcome to the smaller, richer future.
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